Analysis: Mainstream Media Coverage of Same-Sex Union Debate Omits Key Points

May 14, 2012
Eric J. Lubbers / Foter

DENVER – Public opinion about gay marriage and civil unions may be closely divided in Colorado, but a review of recent reporting by Colorado’s major newspaper shows a more one sided affair.

In the flurry of coverage by The Denver Post, reports have overwhelmingly sided with proponents of civil unions and gay marriage, giving repeated coverage to activists who are critical of House Speaker Frank McNulty’s alleged decision to torpedo the legislation, while largely ignoring the core arguments made by Republicans.

Since heavy local coverage of the issue began last week, arguments made by gay marriage and civil union proponents have rarely been accompanied by the counter-arguments of the opposition in news reports.

Similarly, statements made by supporters of the controversial legislation have often gone unchallenged, and analysis provided by reporters has been misleading or incomplete.

The first of story written by Ivan Moreno last week, for example, began with the line “Chants of ‘shame on you’ from gay rights supporters thundered through the Colorado House.” No discussion, however, of the gay marriage supporter who shouted “I hope you f*cking die” at Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty when proceedings on the bill reached an impasse (although the outburst was reported in subsequent Post coverage).

Moreno’s piece goes on to note that “More than a dozen states allow either gay marriage or civil unions.  Hawaii and Delaware began allowing civil unions this year.”  Absent from Moreno’s article, however, is any reference to the fact that most states – 32 of them according to the Washington Times – define marriage as between a man and a woman in their state constitutions, or that some 40 states bar the practice in statute.

The second Denver Post story penned by Moreno, follows a similar pattern, omitting key details that are necessary to provide readers with context.

His May 9 piece in The Denver Post, for example, reports that “Gay rights advocates say the [same-sex union] proposal has enough support to become law but was blocked by last-minute stall tactics from GOP House leaders.  Republicans disagree, saying the bill came up too late in the session for proper consideration.”  But the report doesn’t include any information about the bill’s movement through the legislative process.

A quick review of the General Assembly’s tracking information on the bill reveals that after being introduced in the Democrat-controlled Senate on January 11, Senate Bill 12-02 languished there for four months — almost the entire length of the legislative session.  When the legislation was finally sent to the GOP-led House of Representatives on May 1, legislators there were left with only a week to consider the bill (along with dozens of others) before its constitutionally mandated adjournment on May 9.  Yet this fact was not included in either of Moreno’s stories.

Semantics have also been a point of contention in media coverage of the debate.  Moreno’s article notes that “McNulty…repeatedly referred to civil unions as gay marriage, even though supporters say the bill does not grant same-sex couples all the rights married couples have.”  His article included no discussion, however, of what “opponents” say about the issue – namely that gay marriage and civil unions are essentially indistinguishable from one another, and that even supporters of civil unions often refer to them as providing same-sex couples with the “same rights” as traditional married couples.

Moreno’s second story also noted once again that “More than a dozen states allow either gay marriage or civil unions, including several that moved to pass such laws this year,” while making no reference to the overwhelming number of states that explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Bias by Omission

Perhaps the greatest advantage for civil union supporters in the media rests in the unwillingness of the press so far to give anything more than short shrift to key Republican arguments.

None of the reports, for example, noted that Democrats failed to pass the legislation for the four years they controlled both houses of the legislature when Bill Ritter, a Democrat, was governor.

Political observers note that Democrats may have avoided the issue during that time to spare Ritter from having to decide on whether or not to sign such a bill, and for fear of igniting an intra-party dispute over such a controversial and divisive social issue.

There’s also no mention of how low priority of an issue same-sex marriage is to most of the electorate – a key issue raised by legislative Republicans who argued against the $1,000 an hour special session on the grounds that most Colorado voters are far more concerned about reviving the economy than they are in a protracted discussion about divisive social issues.

It’s an argument that appears to square with recent polling data, which shows the issue of same-sex unions nowhere near the top of the list of voter concerns.  In the March 2012 WSJ/NBC poll of issues voters want to see the government address, for example, gay marriage doesn’t even register (see page 11 of the poll).

Local reports have also sidestepped any discussion of the notion that Hickenlooper’s focus on gay marriage appears to be part of a wider political strategy by President Barack Obama, who the day after the defeat of civil union legislation in Colorado endorsed gay marriage for the first time.

Also ignored is the fact that the Democrats current focus on social issues seems to run counter to the arguments party leaders clobbered Republicans with during the 2004 election cycle, namely that the GOP was focusing too heavily on social issues to the detriment of “more important” issues like the economy.

Many Republicans are now making that same argument against Democrats, but it is an argument that has gained decidedly less traction with the reporters and pundits tracking the debate today than it did when Democrats made it just a few short election cycles ago against the GOP.

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